Big Daddy marked a number of firsts in Adam Sandler’s career – the first film where he really played an adult, the first father-son drama, the first film set in an urban locale, and the first film where he really felt capable of conceding a broader comic world, and the existence of other comic voices. It’s also the first film where he had real conversations, and engaged in real comic dialogue, which means that it’s the first film, too, that was confident with the tics and beats of conventional comic timing. Sandler plays Sonny Koufax, a New York slacker whose girlfriend leaves him abruptly at the start of the film, claiming he’s too much of a man-child. In order to prove his worth, Sandler adopts Julian McGrath, a five-year old boy played by twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse, who in turn leads him to Layla Moloney, a lawyer played by Joey Lauren Adams, who helps him retain custody for a while, and then falls in love with him.
For the most part, Big Daddy is basic, but heartfelt, steering clear of Sandler’s more saccharine tendencies, thanks to an ensemble cast that includes Jon Stewart, Leslie Mann, Rob Schneider and Steve Buscemi. Some of those faces are familiar from Sandler’s earlier productions (Allen Covert is here as always) and some are new, but the look and style of the film as a whole couldn’t be more different from Sandler’s previous airbrushed visions of suburbia. Here, we have something closer to a David E. Kelley drama, alternating between location shooting in New York and the exposed brick wonderland of Sonny’s amazing apartment, which looks like a giant playpen, replete with spiral staircase, zigzagging ramp, and crazy angles in every direction. It’s clearly modelled on the apartment and restaurant from Friends – a late 90s lite-grunge vibe that transforms Big Daddy into a downbeat indie dramedy almost despite itself.
No Sandler film has ever quite transcended Billy Madison, which captured his comic universe so succinctly and perfectly that every film since has drawn from it in some way. Yet Big Daddy reinvents Billy Madison more ingeniously than many of Sandler’s subsequent films – and the reinvention is even more notable in that this is effectively the same plot as Billy Madison, with a few minor tweaks. Like Billy, Sonny has to prove that he can effectively adult. Like Billy, too, Sonny gets on better with kids than adults, at least during the first two acts of the film. Sonny even looks like Billy, opting for baggy clothes that turn him into a big kid, albeit with a bit more street cred, given that we’re now in the late 90s, and in a more overtly “urban” space.
Yet where Billy becomes more of a kid by going to school, Sonny succeeds in turning Julian into an adult, rather than Julian turning him into a child. In doing so, Sandler achieves adulthood for the first time in any of his films, perhaps explaining why Paul Thomas Anderson rated this the best film in Sandler’s catalogue before bringing him onto Punch-Drunk Love – along with Anderson’s career-long fixation and fascination with surrogate father-figures, which is also on full display here. Since Julian adopts many of Sandler’s regular intonations, he takes on some of the burden of childishness, leaving just enough for Sandler to pair his trademark infantile outbursts with a newfound sense of himself as an actor playing an adult.
In practice, this means that Sonny parents Julian by teaching him how to bully, rather than overtly bullying himself. Sometimes this involves bullying himself, as when he runs in front of a moving car to make Julian laugh, or bullying others, as when he encourages Julian to trip over roller bladers, but for the most part the film refrains from the reactive comedy typical of Sandler’s earlier features. Whereas gay people were openly framed as freaks in The Wedding Singer, Sandler’s best friends here are a gay bro couple, and while one of their mutual friends grows squeamish whenever they make out, Sandler himself never bats an eyelid. To some extent, these gay characters are window dressing in a film that finally explores Sandler’s anxiety about masculinity, and father-son relationships, but they’re also pretty endearing on their own terms – like watching a couple of bros earnestly trying to imagine genuine gayness.
Apart from that, the reactive comedy of Sandler’s earlier films is largely deflected into people-watching in New York parks, as well as the rhythm of Sonny and Julian walking over the city. It’s a bit of a highbrow comparison, but these outdoor scenes often reminded me of Bicycle Thieves, since Sandler also looks most natural with a kid trotting alongside him, giving him space to explore his inner child, but also a point of difference to define his adulthood as well. Since it’s a Sandler film, though, it’s not entirely good-natured, doubling down on the slut-shaming more than any of his other films to date. Virtually every woman in the film who doesn’t satisfy Sonny’s desires turns out to have worked at Hooters – one of the oddest pieces of product placement in Sandler’s career – creating a virgin-Hooters dichotomy that ends with Sonny bringing Lalya to his local branch, where his ex-girlfriend serves them as they sit down.
Along with this slut-shaming, however, Big Daddy is quite notable in Sandler’s career for being the first film where he really permits himself to have male nemeses. Since Sandler’s infantilism previously depended on coddling motherly and grandmotherly figures, allowing himself to engage with male nemeses seems to be an important part of his rise to adulthood here. First, Sonny’s ex-girlfriend shacks up with a 60-year-old man (who also ends up back at Hooters) and then Sonny ends up being cross-examined by his father while trying to sue for custody of Julian. The film gets pretty baggy here, but recovers with a sweet denouement, as being a father allows Sonny to restore his connection to his own father, while all the other people in the courtroom, gay men included, call their fathers to say how much they love them.
Yet the slut-shaming curdles it somewhat, persisting right to the end, like a reminder that this kind of male bonding often depends upon reducing women to objects, catalysts, mere conduits. In the final scene, set at Hooters, you can’t help but suspect that this newfound maturity in Sandler’s career is quite fleeting, destined for the demonic backlash of Little Nicky.